Seattle U Law faculty successfully petitions Washington Supreme Court to grant diploma privilege

June 17, 2020

Court's order suspends requirement to pass bar exam, enabling aspiring lawyers to begin practicing law and earning income more quickly

Seattle University School of Law welcomes a recent order by the Washington Supreme Court granting a diploma privilege to all applicants currently registered to take the bar examination, which was issued after the law school's faculty sent a letter requesting reconsideration of the issue. The text of the Court's order referenced "extraordinary barriers" that applicants currently face, and this is the first time in the state's history that such a privilege has been granted to aspiring attorneys, who will now be able to practice law sooner.

The diploma privilege allows individuals who have met all other requirements set forth by the Washington State Bar Association to practice law in Washington without passing the bar examination. Ordinarily, passing the bar exam is a requirement to be licensed as a lawyer in the state. Individuals may still choose to take the bar exam, which is helpful if they want reciprocity because they plan to practice in the future in another state.

In May, instead of granting a diploma privilege, the court lowered the passing score for the bar exam and added an additional examination date in September. It reconsidered its decision after receiving a letter from the Seattle University School of Law faculty last week, which was backed by a unanimous faculty vote. In the letter, the faculty took the position that the combined effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice protests - which have created significant challenges to students who are trying to prepare for the bar exam - warranted the adoption of a diploma privilege.

The Seattle U Law letter built on earlier advocacy by the student bar associations of Washington state's three law schools - Seattle University School of Law, Gonzaga University School of Law, and the University of Washington School of Law - in support of the diploma privilege. The students' efforts were instrumental in laying the foundation and providing the narrative of the impact and burden of COVID-19 on graduates trying to study for the bar exam.

"In addition to the students' advocacy, this positive outcome came about because we have an incredibly responsive and thoughtful state supreme court," Dean Annette E. Clark '89.

Professor from Practice Robert C. Boruchowitz was motivated to ask the faculty to petition the court after speaking to students who were feeling overwhelmed by the doubly devastating impact of the racially based killings and the coronavirus. He has heard from recent graduates who are coping with illness, job loss in their families, disruption in their housing, the inability to find a secure place to study due to the closure of the school's facility, and the impact of helicopters and tear gas in their neighborhoods.

Shanece Dedeaux is one such graduate. In the past two months, she has been managing several difficult challenges, including contracting COVID-19, homeschooling her five children, and dealing with a loss of income after her husband also contracted the virus and was unable to work, all while trying to prepare for the bar exam.

"This news is a major relief, not because I believe I was in jeopardy of not passing the bar exam, but rather now I can breathe. The diploma privilege will really set in once I am sworn in and get my bar card," she said. Dedeaux, who has a job lined up with a law firm, anticipates this will allow her to start working much sooner than if she were required to take the bar exam and wait for the results, which will help her family's financial situation.

"I am pleased and proud that our faculty and dean led the way in asking the Supreme Court to reconsider its position and grant the diploma privilege. It is a major step in addressing the unfair and disproportionate impacts of the virus and racial inequities," Boruchowitz said.

Additionally, the court has also agreed to form a study group to examine the continuing viability of the bar exam for admission to practice. 

"The unanimous vote of our faculty and the decision by the Washington Supreme Court to both grant diploma privilege and to set up a study group is groundbreaking," said Lisa Brodoff, associate professor and director of the Ronald A. Peterson Law Clinic. "I am hopeful that this decision and the study of possible bias in the bar exam will lead to long-term systemic changes in bar admissions so that our law graduates can immediately provide our communities with the access to justice that motivated them to become lawyers in the first place."

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